What Is Psychological Safety? How to Build Psychologically Safe Workplaces

CoachHub · 3 January 2023 · 6 min read

What would you think of a space where your opinion is welcome, and criticisms are made without demeaning your human dignity? The impact of this on team members would be phenomenal, as everyone will look forward to sharing their opinions and appreciate constructive criticisms, rather than feel attacked for whatever mistakes they might make along the line.

A psychologically safe workplace is important for both the employee and the organization alike. Research shows that psychological safety can influence the outcomes of a team to a large extent. Building psychologically safe teams is important to drive productive engagement between team members and employees. Organizations must therefore seek ways to improve the psychological safety of team members in a workplace for a lasting impact on the members of the organization.

What is psychological safety?

Psychological safety is the ability of team members to take the risk to air their opinion, without expecting to be humiliated, embarrassed or punished for doing so. It’s the expectation to look forward to feedback, constructive criticisms, or own up to mistakes with the confidence to receive empathetic responses from their team members.

APA’s EDI framework describes it as an environment, where people of various social identities are fully included and safely engaged while prioritizing the societally marginalized and underrepresented.

In terms of psychological safety in the workplace, it’s the work culture where co-workers can expect empathy from one another irrespective of their differences, and subordinates can anticipate the same from superiors.

Achieving psychological safety at work isn’t about being nice every day to colleagues and employees. It only implies that they don’t have to keep shut when they have a differing opinion, and they can freely air it or hide their mistake. So whatever the posture is, it’s about understanding that there are values in place that regulate how people relate with one another.

Stages of psychological safety

Safety is a basic need as portrayed in Abraham Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. Many workers spend nothing less than 38 hours weekly on their jobs, hence safety becomes a necessity for optimum work performance.

Author, Dr. Timothy Clark, highlights 4 stages of safety employees progress through before they become innovative and feel included in organizational processes.

1. Inclusion safety:

Humans love to connect and feel safe wherever they find themselves. They strive to be accepted for who they are and known for what distinguishes them from others.

2. Learner safety:

Another stage is the learner safety stage, where we identify the need to grow and learn. It expresses a sense of safety in exchanging knowledge, asking questions, making mistakes and getting feedback.

3. Contributor Safety:

This stage describes the confidence to meaningfully contribute your abilities in making a difference wherever you find yourself. It connotes a sense of safety in sharing opinions with others.

4. Challenger Safety

The stage of safety identifies the need to improve on the existing order. Such that, an individual takes up the challenge to do things differently when provided the opportunity to enable growth.

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Importance of psychological safety

Working in an environment that isn’t psychologically safe can pose serious mental and structural hazards to an organization and its employees. Here’s why organizational leaders must ensure it becomes a part of the company culture.

Improved mental well-being:

Are your team members having to deal with psychological challenges? They probably lack the safety required to help them freely air their opinions and perspectives. When this becomes the norm, team members are at risk of a mental breakdown. Individual mental health is essential for team performance, and psychological safety can significantly impact mental health.

Improved performances and productivity:

A psychologically safe workplace permits employees to make mistakes and learn from them. Also, they can disagree constructively to reach a common goal. Where constructive criticism is welcome and offered with empathy, much can be achieved productively. Also, it enables improved performances as employees are enabled to do better.

Innovative ideas and solutions:

Ideas rule the world, they say. That works only when they are aired, appreciated and nurtured in the right environment. This means you can expect improved performances from team members, as they freely contribute their ideas and opinions without giving in to sentiments. With a combination of the right ideas, team members can develop innovative and outstanding solutions.

Diversity of talent insight and contribution:

Talents are evolving and getting even more creative in their jobs. This means that there may be conflicting propositions in an attempt to solve a challenge. A workplace that is psychologically safe ensures that all of these insights are received and nurtured adequately. Ultimately, it provides ample ways to solve a challenge and ensure organizational success.


How to ensure a psychologically safe workplace

The following steps are essential to improve your workplace culture and foster psychological safety.

Discuss how much of a priority psychological safety is for your organization:

When psychological safety becomes an essential part of your organizational structure and employees understand how it contributes to the mission of the organization, they are more inclined to embrace it and ensure that it works. This is not about shoving it down your employee’s throat as a rule.

Rather, it’s a subject to be discussed, to help employees see why it’s important to ask for help when needed and also offer help when it’s requested from them. A good way to do this is to set models of expected behavior and models of inappropriate behavior to foster psychological safety.

Help employees see that failure is not a problem:

Developing a psychologically safe environment will be challenging when leaders constantly make employees feel incompetent when they make mistakes or fail. When they know that the organization encourages forward-thinking risk-taking and experimentation, there is a high possibility of growth among employees. It also widens the learning curve, as it becomes unlikely for people to choose not to speak up or own up to their mistakes.

Encourage idea banking:

When you acknowledge the expertise of your employees you’ve got to realize that streams of ideas will be coming up as they go about discharging their responsibilities. Organizational leaders must know well enough to embrace and seek ways to utilize those ideas and put them to life instead of dismissing them. All of these ideas might not be exactly perfect, however, in the multitude of ideas is that one idea that’s required to come up with an innovative solution.

Identify safety gaps in your organization:

Some organizations fail in providing psychological safety at all levels. It’s possible that senior employees will feel psychologically safer than employees at the bottom line. This will require you to assess what safety means for each level of engagement so that things are not left to assumption. A recent survey revealed that only 47% of workers in 24 countries feel psychologically safe at their jobs. This means that organizations, where this is lacking, are probably making wrong assumptions or not taking the right steps to embrace diversity and improve their working culture. Asking questions will help you identify these gaps and note where your employees feel psychologically unsafe.

Encourage openness and authenticity:

Showing your employees that it’s okay to speak the truth, be frank about their opinions and feel confident when they have differing views goes a long way in establishing psychological safety. When employees understand that they are free to express their differences for the betterment of the organization, they will be happy to do so knowing that there is no risk attached.

Organizational coaching:

Leaders and employees alike need coaching to develop essential skills that foster psychological safety. Organizing L&D programs, and personalized coaching can go a long way in helping employees develop ethical work cultures that enhance organizational safety. Empathy, communication, and accountability are safety must-haves that leaders and employees can acquire in coaching.

Final Words

Improving the feeling of psychological safety among employees is pivotal for individual and organizational growth. Where diversity and inclusion exist and individuals can freely air their opinion without associated risks, it becomes easy to tackle challenges firsthand. Coaching is a no-brainer approach to getting teams to understand and prioritize psychologically safe behavior.

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Samuel Olawole
Samuel Olawole is a freelance copywriter and content writer who specializes in creating exciting content across a wide range of topics and industries. When he’s not writing, you can find him traveling or listening to good music.

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